Review of ‘Hothouse Earth’ by Prof Bill McGuire

‘To have even the tiniest chance of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C, we need to see emissions down 45% by 2030.’

Over the last few days, Prof Bill McGuire’s latest book ‘Hothouse Earth’ came out. The Guardian newspaper gave a review/summary here, which gave the impression that Prof McGuire was saying that it was too late to do anything about the climate crisis. The article and headline claimed that ‘total climate meltdown cannot be stopped according to a leading UK scientist.’

 I raised this with Prof McGuire, who responded ‘My message is NOT that it’s too late. We need to act now to stop dangerous climate breakdown becoming cataclysmic.’

 In a separate tweet, he then made it even more abundantly clear and distanced himself from the headline in the article: ‘Just wanted to say, the ‘total climate meltdown’ is the headline writer, not me. I don’t say this, nor does the article. And I still believe we can avoid #climate cataclysm is we act now.’

With this context, I wanted to see for myself what the message in his text was and what I found is below.

‘HotHouse Earth’

McGuire structures this book very coherently, opening with his vision and charting the difference between how generations have experienced life on the planet. The aim is simple: ‘To have even the tiniest chance of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C, we need to see emissions down 45% by 2030. In theory, this might be possible, but in the real world- barring some unforeseen miracle- it isn’t going to happen.’

If it doesn’t happen then we will have made a commitment to the generations that follow, as well as betraying those who have come before- ‘…this is the hothouse planet we are committed to living on; one that would be utterly alien to our grandparents.’

McGuire does not shy away from the charge that he is raising an alarm, when he states: ‘Raising the alarm, in our current circumstances, is a good thing. It fits with the precautionary principle and also with the idea that we need to really know our enemy…’ He sets out that this text should be seem as the one of the most pressing call to arms that we have had and in this call makes it clear that he still believes there is time.

‘The fact that the future looks dismal is not an excuse to do nothing, to imagine it’s all too late. On the contrary, it is a call to arms.’

He does acknowledge the ‘waste of breath the years behind’ at the end of the text where he makes the point that we are running out of time and have few straws left, owing to interference from bad actors intent on delay tactics. ‘In the decades since the first Un COP Climate Change Conference in 1995, we have used up an entire bale in prevarication and inertia, so all we are left to clutch is the last straw. We cannot fail to grasp it.’

‘We have repeatedly refused to listen and chosen not to act.’

McGuire charts the number of times that the IPCC has sounded the alarm since its inception and, like a tanker, we have been very slow to change direction. ‘We have been put on notice time and time again about the potentially catastrophic impact of rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, but we have repeatedly refused to listen and chosen not to act.’

With over 30 years of positive, assertive action, the world could be in a much better position that that in which it now finds itself. Instead we find ourselves in a situation where hardly any countries are on target with their emission reductions and where total greenhouse gases have risen by 43% in roughly the last 30 years. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 354ppm to 420ppm, an increase of 19%. We cannot wait for a ‘tipping point’ to occur before acting- by this time it will be far too late. Prevention is always better than impact management.

‘From Narnia to Eden’

In a stroke of mythological genius, McGuire takes the time to explore the transition of our species from Narnia to Eden, or from Ice Age to present. The impact of humans on the environment ‘is written across every corner of the natural world; a time when our pollution, be it carbon dioxide, radioactive isotopes, or microplastics, infiltrates and contaminates everything, down to pristine Antarctica ice and the placentas of pregnant women.’

He also makes the crucial point that more desperate measures may be considered the ‘longer we maintain the human greenhouse’ and we have seen these already being discussed in geoengineering terms.

As this text was written in 2021, McGuire has missed out on many of the temperature records that have tumbled this year. With the UK temperature record of 38.7°C significantly broken at 40.3°C- a country that is not prepared or suited to temperatures of this high, but one which needs to prepare dramatically, as more will follow. Most days will feature climate stories, whether these are wildfires, heatwaves, or flooding, causing untold financial damage and cost to human life. Climate breakdown is happening today and we can all be witnesses to this. Climate breakdown is ‘not something that belongs to the distant future’, as McGuire phrases it. An issue that used to be thought of impacting grandchildren and future generations has sped up and we care now impacted by it today- at only 1.2°C higher than pre-industrial times.

Not everywhere is heating at the same rate and McGuire concisely focuses on the Arctic and the impact of rapid heating there. The different scenarios from the IPCC are also outlined clearly for new readers, but McGuire does not do this flippantly. He emphasises the point that ‘every degree of temperature rise, even every tenth of a degree, chips away that little bit more of our previously benign climate’ and therefore every tenth of a degree is worth fighting for, so that we can save ‘All We Can Save.’

The end of the century and 2100 seem so far away from 2022. But with fewer than 80 years to go, this can easily be in the lifetime of children born today. With heatwaves increasing in frequency and extremity, many different parts of the world may be uninhabitable well before this ‘target’ date of 2100.

The danger of switching off

As images of wildfires and climate disasters such as droughts and floods continue to feature more regularly on our screens, will this be enough to prompt action? In short, how bad does it have to become and for whom, before countries act with purpose with global collective action? It seems that already the Australian fires of recent years have disappeared from our memories- floods seem to happen to ‘other people’.

How long can our attention be focused on climate action and what part does the media and politicians have in sustaining this attention?

Will there be enough fresh water in case of water shortages and emergency response management? Will there be enough food as harvests fail and famines occur?

How high will sea level rise be under different scenarios? Why is the rate of rise increasing? Who is being impacted by this just now and who is likely to be impacted by this in the future? How will sea level rise impact coastal infrastructure?

These are some of the questions that McGuire takes time to explore in this book and these are questions that need to be addressed and solutions thought of now, now only in response to events. Prevention and mitigation are both key.

What I like about this text is that McGuire explains clearly about some of the big topics relating to the climate: soil, oceans, Greenland, Antarctica, methane, AMOC, etc and after explaining each, evaluates how likely each could be and how they are being impacted by the continuing ‘business as usual.’

Climate migrants, refugees

The Sahel, Yemen, Syria are places which are outlined as being in need of humanitarian response, but on whom does this responsibility lie: financially? Legally? or morally? Which countries are prepared to take in hundreds of millions of possible climate migrants and will conflict over water and fertile land produce more future climate flashpoints. McGuire warns that ‘There is no easy way to say it, but the world of our children and their children will be a far more perilous one. As resources and habitable land diminishes will turn against in an effort to maintain or gain what they feel is their share and their right.’ As this has been the history of our civilisation and tribal people, there is no reason to assume that mankind will suddenly stop this behaviour.

Serious questions need honesty

There are serious questions raised in this book, which McGuire does not shy away from. He addresses them honestly and calmly. He acknowledges the difficulty and uncertainty of the future and this approach is a welcome one. Consequences are not absolute, nor does the climate crisis necessitate binary, drastic solutions. McGuire offers pathways to action that are available to all of us to make us empowered rather than being crippled by eco-anxiety and eco-grief. ‘Fossil fuel companies, responsible for leaking around half of all methane emitted by human activities, need to be made-by law- to clean up their act immediately.’ McGuire calls for punitive measures for fossil fuel companies and argues that there can be no fossil future, when he describes the continuation of new exploration licences as ‘bordering in the insane.’

McGuire has been criticised for the seeming rushed ending to this book, where ‘solutions’ are listed, almost in a list. In truth though, we know what the solutions are, as equally we know who is causing much of the problems. With a renewed focus on the impact of decision makers on the climate and with everyone asking the same question, is this decision good or not for the climate, McGuire argues that ‘the coming decade is very likely the most critical in human history’. A point of view that is not new to the climate crisis narrative.

Who is failing whom?

McGuire concludes by offering the moral argument that the mark of great societies is one where all the citizens are looked after, regardless of status and that stewardship of the planet should be a priority. To act otherwise, makes us no better than the smoking companies and fossil fuels companies, who know their products were dangerous, but did nothing, so lonely as the profits came in.

‘The measure of the maturity of any society must be how well it looks after the needs of every one of its people, and how it cares for the planet and all life thereon, by which metric we are little more than toddlers flailing about aimlessly in the dark.’

Those resident in the UK, and indeed in other countries, may watch helplessly on the side-lines, as we see politicians focus on any topic other than the climate crisis, as a means to foster short term support.

But we are not helpless. We are not voiceless. And we can be powerful.


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